Friday, November 13, 2015

Yes I am a digital photographer but I shoot film

Portra 400 on Leica M-A with Summilux 50mm
I am excited to report that today I got fired (well technically called a cheat and had to leave) a film photography group on facebook. What a rush! I have not felt more alive in a while.

This being 2 days removed from being chosen the featured photographer of the day by the same group and one of my photos gracing the groups banner for 24 hours.

The photo in question is this one on the left of my daughter's favorite structure on earth.

It began with a hostile post from one of the admins yesterday warning us that they are aware of certain cheats and they are going to spot challenge (part of their forum rules to be fair) by asking people to furnish a negative for any photo deemed to be a "fake". Surprisingly I liked that status totally ignorant of what was to follow.

Today I was indeed "challenged" - reason being many group residents supposedly had questioned this photo of being a "fake" aka digital.

Me being me, I immediately deleted all my posts on the group and bowed out as I did not want nothing to do with this kind of a culture.

Not that I did not want to prove my "innocence",  I did not want to give power to a small group of mean individuals who were out to tarnish my professionalism simply because my photos "looked" like digital snapshots.  Also now all my submissions were tainted and even after producing my negative how could I confidently post to a forum where, for me, there will be an invisible finger pointing suspiciously.

Well that is not the reason I am writing this. I am writing to share a bewildering amount of hate I saw in various posts directed towards digital photography. I totally understand if I am part of a biker gang, I have to praise tattoos or for that matter be anti-establishment.

However I strongly believe in the value of creativity as a key ingredient in any art form and being punished because you use a tool (in my case a heavy dose of photoshop to create a specific look) seems irrational.

One day you will fly away...
I have created composites that are all shot on film but stitched together digitally for effect. "One day you will fly away..." is an example of a composite that is made up of 3 different film photos. The birds, the people and the baseplate. All of these are brought into Photoshop, masked and worked on to get to the final "look". Of course this is a digital photo but shot on film to get the lovely blown out look which maybe I can replicate digitally but saves me time shooting film. So as a creative artist, where should I draw a line? Or should I?

Honestly I do not have any issue with digital workflows and photography equipment. I have used digital in the past (would love to own a Leica M Monochrom someday) and still use my iPhone as my walkabout camera when I am not carrying any other gear. I like to use filters and presets/actions to give that distinct look to my images. I am more concerned about what helps me get to my final image rather than the tools involved.

The reason I shoot all film these days is not because I have a religious bias for it or a hatred for everything digital, it just is for technical reasons. Film emulsion with the extreme latitude lets me achieve that 3D overexposed dreamy look without having to worry about blown highlights. I shoot film because I fell in love with Portra 400 for portraits and how they look.

Combine that with metering correctly (i meter for the shadows and overexpose 2-5 stops) and let the development take care of highlights. Eventually all this creates a stunning and high resolution scanned image which gives me everything digital can with some extra benefits of the organic film look.

In terms of tools, I have a Linhof Master Technica which I use for lovely 4x5 BW negatives that I want to be able to develop and scan at home. I do not have a full darkroom available and use the dev tanks for all BW processing till 4x5.

If I am doing polaroid 8x10s or fine art or landscapes I use my Tachihara 8x10 and get a negative which beats the shit out of any output from any smaller format period. I honestly got my Leica just to shoot Cinestill XPro 800 for nighttime cinematic photos. Bummer that 120mm kickstarter did not work out.  That look is what I am after and my cameras are mere tools for different projects.

Most of my finishing happens in photoshop where I love experimenting with tone and levels, play with presets or actions and now after several years I almost have a workflow of what I do in order to get to my distinct look. I think every photographer strives to create that custom look and I am no different in that respect. Hopefully some of you who have seen my photos see a pattern I follow for portraits.

Baby Portrait on Portra 400
Never have I thought about my photo becoming too digital-looking. Was the sharpness a bit too much or colors popping a bit more that a usual film photo.

And that brings me to the other more technical issue with this whole thing. How can someone really definitively conclude about the origin of a snapshot merely by seeing a photo online with compression etc.? Here I am creating and uploading on a color corrected monitor while you may be on a different monitor/browser combo that renders the photo entirely differently. Unless we compare prints out of the negative there is no absolute way to pass a judgement of whether a photo is film or digital. With good post production today one can create that blurry overblown and 3D film look and VSCO and Nik type softwares have evolved greatly and are excellent tools available to aid.

What I am trying to say is yes, there is a difference between film and digital but you can take a film photo and do post production and it may not always look like what a film is supposed to look.

But who decides what film is supposed to look? Why should I be forced to maintain the so called traditional look of film? If I choose, I may want to have a different look - heck I have taken a lot of my photos and tried to give them an HDR type look just because they look cool. As a creative person I am sad to see boundaries being drawn that restricts creativity.

I am a digital photographer. I indeed use post production on 99% of my photos and I believe I am pretty good at it too. Judicious use of blur, contrast and color rendition can make or break an image. I strive to make a great photo and my film, strobes, cameras, filters etc. just happen to be one of several tools helping my end goal - making a great photograph.

To all purists out there who frown upon digital contamination with the zeal of a religious fanatics, all I have to say don't get caught up too much in the medium - it is the final result that matters. I rest my case.


Anonymous said...

Here's a film purist. His name is Paul Berry:

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of slide film? The exposure latitude of slide film is very narrow, but the vibrant colors are worth it!